Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota's natural and cultural history. We encourage dialogue, questions, and comments!

Kris Kitko's blog

Music at the Mansion: Historic Sing-alongs Attract All Ages

Historic sites may display images or stories of tragedy and bravery in battle. Others bring to life accounts of flourishing Mandan and Hidatsa trading centers centuries prior to statehood. The Former Governors’ Mansion State Historic Site offers glimpses of life in the capital city for North Dakota’s first families of decades past, including times of celebration and song.

We can’t be certain which songs were sung around the fireplace or which Beethoven pieces may have been played on the 1910 Steinway in the parlor — but we do know that music filled the home on many occasions between 1893 and 1960 when governors and their families lived there.

For the past several years, we have incorporated live music or sing-alongs in most events, and for some events music is the main attraction. “Watermelon and Folk Songs” on Independence Day, “Labor Day Folk Songs,” and “Memorial Day Poetry and Music” commemorate special days with an assortment of songs sung by staff and visitors. These programs draw good-sized crowds eager to participate in a community sing-along.

As both an educator and a professional musician, I am grateful for the opportunity to develop these programs. It would be easy to sing only songs that I know, but offering a presentation that more accurately reflects the history of the Mansion requires much research — and rehearsal! To begin planning, I research American songs that were popular between the late 1800s and 1960, depending on our theme. Although YouTube is a fantastic resource, it’s not necessarily accurate, so I search for information from sources such as the Smithsonian Institution or academic libraries around the country. I also need to be certain that I understand the topic; many song lyrics are filled with sarcasm and double meanings, so it’s important to check the background of the lyrics before presenting them to the public at a state historic site!

After song selection, I learn the melody and the chords for guitar, ukulele, or piano. Luckily for me, Site Supervisor Johnathan Campbell understands that if I’m quietly singing in a back room between greeting visitors, I’m actually making sure I’m prepared to lead a publicized event for people who come specifically to the Mansion on Independence Day or another holiday.

Kris sitting with a guitar in hands and computer in front of her

On the day of the event, visitors sing using handouts or lyrics projected onto a screen — after all, participation is the main reason people come to music events. In fact, visitors have asked us to host more regular folk song sing-alongs.

Kris playing guitar with a bunch of people sitting and watching

Our Independence Day program is festive, often featuring shakers and percussion or a special appearance by Uncle Sam (Gary Miller) singing and playing banjo. The Memorial Day poetry and music event is much more reverent and subdued, with an opportunity for guests to share a story of a friend or family member who served in the military. One of my favorite events, it tends to be filled with heartfelt remembrances and a sense of community as we listen to each other’s stories.

Years ago, children played at the Mansion and on the grounds. We’ve hosted thousands of children for “Fun Friday,” “Birds, Bugs, and Slugs,” “Dinosaur Day,” and other programs with music. Our Flag Day parade, which travels around the Mansion block and is led by children waving handmade flags and playing drums or blowing horns, has been a newspaper photo favorite for the bright colors and lively participants.

Kris leading a parade of children with others spectating

Adding music to events may be seen as simply a “little extra something” for our visitors, but we’ve found that by adding carefully selected songs, we can offer an engaging, one-of-a-kind experience that holds a special place in the memories of Former Governors’ Mansion visitors. They often return year after year.

Oh, the Places You Will (Not) Go: Inside Forbidden Spaces at the Former Governors’ Mansion

In his classic children’s book, Dr. Seuss wrote, “Oh, the places you will go….” But at the Former Governors’ Mansion State Historic Site, we could add “and the places you will not go.” We have both kinds of places—rooms and nooks where visitors can spend hours, and places that are generally off-limits because of accessibility or safety issues (such as the precarious basement stairs). Let me take you now to some of those forbidden places.

Roof: The hatch in the ceiling of the attic can be reached by climbing a ladder, and the original, 134-year-old wooden ladder is still used today by our staff for roof access. The flat roof, marked by the widow’s walk railing, provides a stunning view of downtown Bismarck and beyond.

Basement: Although the interpretive panel on the basement door describes the area, venturing into the basement is more exciting. While there is electricity (bulbs hanging from cords), a flashlight provides a better view of the cistern, coal room, and the work table used by prison release trustees (inmates cleared to leave the prison briefly to perform repairs and upkeep at the Mansion). The enormous silver furnace, most likely original to the mansion, is a work of historic technological art.


Furnace in basement (Photo: Johnathan Campbell)

The cistern (the original water source) is approximately ten feet deep and can be accessed only by crawling through a space high in the wall of the coal room. Around the corner is a small bathroom (added between 1907 and 1913) with a toilet still equipped with the wooden tank and pull cord high above the seat. This area also contained a laundry room and a cupboard for canned goods.

Bathroom Cabinets: One of Bismarck’s first indoor bathrooms is mostly sectioned off from traffic. Still inside the cupboard, out of view from the hallway, sits a can of Bon Ami cleanser, circa 1940s.

Top Floor, Carriage House: As the interpretive panel describes, some of the mansion’s caretakers and their families lived in the bright, airy apartment on the upper floor of the Carriage House. Because that area is now Johnathan Campbell’s office (the site supervisor), it is not open for tours. But some of the features of the apartment remain, such as the faux burnished copper light fixtures popular during the Arts and Crafts Movement (late 1800s–early 1900s).

Light fixture

Faux burnished copper light fixture, 1920s (photo: Kris Kitko)

Servant’s Staircase: The narrow, steep, unlit staircase (without handrails) hides a memento in the dark door frame: the initials “R.H.” written in pencil. Site supervisor Johnathan Campbell speculates that the culprit was Robert Hanna, son of Governor Louis B. Hanna, who lived in the mansion with his family from 1913 to 1917.

Initials R.H. written on wood

Initials in servant's staircase (photo: Johnathan Campbell)

If you visit the mansion and would like to see some of these unique spaces, be sure to ask. We may be able to accommodate some requests, with the exception of rooftop visits—as much as we’d like to!

Every year it seems we find something yet to be uncovered, like a tossed light bulb under a staircase, letters etched in wood, or evidence of something that was once secured to the floor. So keep your eyes open; perhaps you will make a discovery in one of the places you (usually) can’t go!